The Cambodian garment industry is facing fresh turmoil after six of the country’s most high-profile union leaders were charged in relation to a series of minimum-wage protests.
The strikes, which began last December, were brought to a violent halt by government forces who opened fire on protesters.
Five protestors were killed, bringing an end to one of the bloodiest chapters in the workers’ fight for a US$60 increase to the US$100 minimum wage.
Although there has been no official reprimand of the actions of the officials involved – nor has there been any transparent or thorough investigation into the killings – it is the union officials who now stand to face at least 14 years in prison if found guilty on charges that include causing aggravated intention violence and damage, as well as blocking traffic.
The move by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court also comes as unions are planning to launch a fresh campaign over the minimum wage on Wednesday 17 September –however, there have been recent fluctuations regarding how much of a wage increase is to be sought.
After calling for US$160 for months, unions then upped their demands to US$177, which they said reflects a rise in inflation and the cost of living. This week, it fell to $150.
Moeun Tola, head of the labour project for the local NGO Community Legal Education Project (CLEC), said the court action has been “well-timed” to interfere with the renewed campaign, which itself precedes talks in October on the minimum wage to be held by the tripartite Labour Advisory Committee.
“In my personal opinion, they use the court to intimidate the campaign and have unions accept the amount that the government and manufacturers decide,” Tola told Equal Times.
In a statement released on Thursday, international rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) called for the “politically motivated prosecution” of Pav Sina, Chea Mony—whose union leader brother Chea Vichea was shot dead in 2004 after calling for wage increases—Ath Thorn, Rong Chhun, Morm Nhim, and Yang Sophon to be dropped.
“Cambodian authorities are pursuing trumped-up charges against labour activists in an apparent attempt to get them to abandon demands for better pay and conditions,” said HRW’s Asia director, Brad Adams, in the statement.
“This is just the latest government effort to scare activists and the political opposition into dropping plans to use protests to advance their causes,” he added.
The charged men head up the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, Free Trade Union, Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, Cambodian Confederation of Unions, National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia and the Cambodian Alliance Trade Unions, respectively.
Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, told Equal Times that he vows to continue pushing for a higher, living wage.
“We will still continue to demand for it,” he said. “We will also talk to our workers to keep up the campaign.
“I think with the court charges that protest will happen. I’ve not yet received a summons, but I saw last week at the court that my name was on the list of people that the prosecutor has charged.
“I think that because we protested [In December and January], there was international pressure,” he said.
“But now, because we’re waiting and some NGOs forgot about it, the companies tried to move on this case and put pressure on us.”
Cambodia’s US$5-billion garment industry employs about 600,000 people who produce goods for major international brands including H&M, Gap and Puma.